Better Small-Medium Business: Wisdom From Mark Twain, John Wooden and The Aussie Outback

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Summary
Inspiration for small-medium business improvement can come from anywhere: even from Mark Twain, John Wooden and a mining town in the Australian outback.
Once Upon A Time…
Over 40 years ago, I was living in a mining community in a very, very remote part of Australia. The nearest town was 400 miles away. I found myself volunteering to coach a team of tradesmen and workers in the local basketball competition. It was rough and ready bush basketball with little or no finesse. But it was great fun. It involved the whole community, male and female, from 10 years of age and upward.
The Message
One Sunday afternoon another volunteer coach and I were having a drink and a chat. “You know,” he said, “the great thing about basketball is that the more you find out about it, the more you realize you don’t know.” I agreed. But at the time I had no idea how profound his comment was.
What Mark And John Say
Last year I found two quotations that said much the same as my coaching colleague.
Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for certain that just ain’t so.” And John Wooden said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
Small-Medium Business Implications
Why don’t we take more notice of these clever and experienced people? I’ve spent most of the last 35 years advising managers how to run better businesses. Of that time, I’ve worked exclusively with mangers in small-medium business for almost 20 years.
I’m fascinated for instance, about how keen these managers are to try to imitate large companies. I constantly discover managers of businesses that employ, say, 26 people explain to me what they can learn from a business that employs 26,000 people!
The Gurus
And they’re also keen to follow some academic gurus who have outstanding professional reputations. But many of these gurus have never run any sort of business in their whole lives.
More Examples
In 1981 Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote “Positioning, The Battle For The Mind”. In 2011, 30 years later, the readers of “Advertising Age” voted “Positioning” the “Most Important Marketing Book Ever”. I still find managers who claim that what Al and Jack say “doesn’t apply to my business”. Thirty years of buyer approval doesn’t seem to mean much to them.
The Conundrum
Many managers are reluctant to accept philosophies and methods that have a long history of effectiveness. Yet they cling to methods – written applications for jobs are an example – that simply don’t work anymore and that technology has overtaken. It’s equally confusing why so many managers grab the latest fad and run with it merely because it’s new, not because it works.
The Perils Of Line Extension And Other “Essentials”
Ries and Trout advised strongly against line extension. It confuses customers and employees. They also pointed out that ideas like “benchmarking” and “world’s best practice” aren’t as valuable as they first appear. They suggest that SME managers should emulate what the likes of Apple was doing when it had, say 30 employees, rather than today when it’s the “most valuable company in the world”.
The Conundrum And You
So what’s all this to do with you and your small-medium business?

Focus, focus, focus: decide the one thing it is you do well and work to get better at it than anyone else

Define your target market: spend all – yes, all – your marketing budget marketing to your target market. Market to no one else.

Accept that there’s lots you don’t know: buy the best external expertise you can afford in those areas you know little about

Beware of fads and fashions, especially if they emerge from the study of big business. Look for things that have worked in businesses around the same size and development as yours

You cannot be all things to all people: don’t bother trying

Expand your business by doing what you do well even better: but do it for more people in your target market

Arrogance is the enemy of successful business people and entrepreneurs. Just because you make the best screwdrivers on the planet, don’t imagine for a minute that this entitles you to teach others to make screwdrivers or yourself to make screws

Be careful about changing something that’s already working very well for you. As the old adage says, “The first person to grow tired of the sales slogan is the salesperson”.

If you’re paying other businesses to provide a service to your business, the same applies. There’s always someone who’ll say, “We could do that ourselves just as well and save the money”. Firstly, you won’t “save the money”. The service will still cost you when provided in-house. Secondly, if you’re satisfied with the results you’re receiving from outside, leave it in place and concentrate your efforts in areas of your business that need changing and that you know lots about.

Be very suspicious of the views of anyone who tells you, “I know for a fact… ” Remember what Mark Twain said. Never accept “facts” without compelling evidence proving their existence.

In case you don’t know, John Wooden is regarded as one of the greatest basketball coaches ever. He chose not to coach in professional leagues. He spent a very long career coaching college basketball with extraordinary success. He died in 2010 at the age of 99. If you think you “know it all”, Wooden suggests you’re indulging yourself. “Failure is not fatal, says Wooden, “but failure to change may be.”

Surveying customers to find out what new products they want simply doesn’t work. When Henry Ford was asked why he didn’t do surveys to find out what people wanted, he’s said to have replied, “They’d have wanted a faster horse.” And Steve Jobs didn’t believe in surveying customers about new products.

You are running or helping to run a business. It’s easy to lose sight of the reality. “How will this benefit the business?” That’s the question to ask always.

The Technology Trap
“The only constant is change” is an old adage that still applies. What this means is that iPads and iPhones and all the technology we’ve become used to is simply the latest change. Technology simply allows us to do things more effectively, more successfully, more quickly and less expensively. It’s not the be all and end all. It’s merely a superior tool. Use it wisely to improve your business. But don’t let it dominate you.
Conclusion
Small-medium business is not a cut down, grade school version of big business. Both must follow similar basic principles. But the application of the principles varies considerably. The old “stick to your knitting” approach still has great merit.
In their 1990s business book, “The Power Of One To One”, Ian Kennedy and Bryce Courtney offered the following advice. “Do only those things to which you bring a unique perspective. Buy everything else around the corner”. It’s excellent advice.

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